NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has revealed bright and dark regions, and possibly even a Polar ice cap, on the surface of Pluto.
The fascinating images were captured at a distance of 70 million miles using the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. The researchers used a technique called image deconvolution to sharpen the raw images taken by the spacecraft. The data was then interpreted the data, revealing broad surface markings on the dwarf planet. The images also included Pluto's largest moon, Charon, which has a 6.4-day long orbit.
"As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto's visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons."
Pluto was first discovered in 1930, but its distance has caused it to remain mysterious. These new images reveal some of the first details about the elusive dwarf planet.
"After traveling more than nine years through space, it's stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface."
New Horizons will continue moving closer to Pluto and capturing even more detailed images until it finally reaches it in July.
"We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto's surface this summer," said Hal Weaver, the mission's project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).